Free Software for Your iPod

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Let me tell you the tale of an early adopter. I've been a huge fan of personal media players--specifically, those with lots of storage--from day one. If you were to make me choose between my digital camera and the box my headphones plug into, the camera will lose every time.

Long before anyone had ever heard of an iPod, I carried around a 6GB Archos Jukebox 6000. It was built like a tank, and its display was embarrassingly clunky and cheap, but I didn't care. I was able to put a pretty large amount of music on it (I had not yet undertaken the task of ripping my entire CD collection), and everywhere I went, geeks said things like "There's a hard drive in there?" and "How much music did you say you can get on there?" (Non-geeks said things like "Why don't you just use a Discman?" Clearly it would take Steve Jobs to explain to the world why this new tech was so insanely great.)

A few years later, 6 gigs was not nearly enough space. iPods were an option by then (spreading like wildfire...nice job, Steve). But the way iPods store your music with scrambled file and folder names--so that you need to use iTunes (which has no Linux version) to interact with the device--turned me off. Linux's own music-management apps didn't yet know how to speak the proprietary language of iPods. (These days, they do.)

So an iPod was not a realistic choice at the time, and it came to pass that my second personal jukebox was an iRiver IHP-120 (later remarketed as the H120). This device gave me the space I craved, and it natively supported Ogg Vorbis audio files, the MP3 alternative favored by a lot of Free Software types. I started ripping all of my CDs as OGGs, and never looked back.

Though the H120 had the right capacity, it was downright frustrating to use. Its playlist support was notoriously buggy. It didn't do gapless playback. And its interface was simply dreadful. I never liked the thing very much--until I gave it the technological equivalent of a brain replacement. Or, speaking in PC terms, I replaced the iRiver's operating system with an open-source alternative (what else?) called Rockbox.

Rockbox turned the H120 into a device that was a pleasure to use, and gave it new features it had never had before, including gapless playback and support for FLAC files. Rockbox reduced the iRiver's startup time from somewhere around 30 seconds (yet another horrible shortcoming of the stock software) to somewhere around 5. My iRiver stopped being a device I cursed at, and took its rightful place among the small family of devices that I smile gladly upon because they Just Work.


Twenty gigs of music storage isn't nearly enough for me these days. I started 2007 yearning painfully for one of those sleek 80GB, fifth-generation video iPods. (Why aren't more players this roomy? Am I the only person who thinks it's great to be able to take your entire music collection with you every time you go someplace?) Even though Linux can talk to iPods now, an 80GB iPod does me little good if I have about 80GB of OGG files: iPods can't play OGGs. And I'm not about to re-rip hundreds of discs to suit a player's shortcomings.

Salvation arrived in May, when Rockbox was finally ported to (that is, altered to run on) the big-daddy iPod model. I ordered my first-ever Apple product the very next day (shopping tip: check for fantastic deals on factory refurbished iPods at Apple's online store), and as soon as it arrived, I taught it how not to behave at all like an iPod.

Here's where I get down to brass tacks and explain how this all works. Rockbox runs on a wide variety of media players now: iPods, iRivers, Archoses, Sansas, Cowon iAudios, and Toshiba GigaBeats. You begin by downloading the latest version of Rockbox tailored to your specific device, as well as a copy of the Rockbox manual. The manual provides detailed installation instructions also tailored to your particular device.

With my iPod, installing Rockbox involved copying a hidden folder containing the Rockbox program itself to the iPod, and then running a Linux app (Mac and Windows versions are available too) to patch the iPod's bootloader so that it will look for the Rockbox program, rather than Apple's OS, on the hard drive.

After that, when I fire up my iPod, I see not the familiar (and, let's be frank, incredibly well-designed) Apple iPod user interface, but a screen telling me that Rockbox is booting. Just a couple of seconds later, my iPod's screen looks something like this:

Screenshot: Rockbox in file browsing mode
Rockbox in file-browsing mode.

Customizing RockBox

Now, I went to some trouble to get things looking this good. Rockbox, just like a lot of modern PC apps, is skinnable. Since different media players have different screen sizes (and some of the older players that Rockbox supports, like my iRiver, don't even display color), Rockbox themes are device-specific. Most of the themes available for the video iPod are as ugly as heck; locating a theme that was clean and informative, and used larger fonts, took me some time. (I find that larger type makes the device easier to futz with quickly--right before putting the car in gear, for instance.) If you give Rockbox a go, you'll probably want to replace the hideous default theme

'Ugly' doesn't really do justice to Rockbox's default, lowest-common-denominator theme.
immediately and select one that meets your needs and your taste.

With Rockbox, my iPod knows how to play OGGs and FLACs. It also behaves as a typical USB mass-storage device, letting me move files to and from the iPod without any of the name-scrambling or other restrictions that iTunes imposes.

On the iPod itself, I can browse my music files directly, wading through the very files and folders I've put there, or Rockbox can present me with the standard artist/album/genre listings that most players provide, based on the ID3 tags in the music files. There's a robot voice I can turn on that reads out loud the currently selected menu item as I navigate through my music; this feature is fantastic when you're driving, because you can keep your eyes on the road while Rockbox tells you that yes, your right thumb has just selected The Beta Band.

Screenshot: Rockbox Settings
You can customize Rockbox to your heart's delight.
Rockbox's extensive Settings menu lets me tweak the player's behavior to my heart's content. An eclectic set of plug-ins comes with Rockbox, too, including a simple game of Solitaire and a Pac-Man emulator that unfortunately lacks sound. A lot more information on Rockbox's features (compared with the stock feature sets for various players) is available at

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